Fungi have long been known for their healthful benefits, and while some members of the fungi kingdom have caused ill effects on those unfortunate enough to have consumed the wrong kind of white caps, others discovered their positive potential early on. Around 450 BC, the well-known Greek physician, Hippocrates, found that certain species of mushroom could help cauterize wounds, and as far back as 2000 BC, lion's mane in particular was used to increase brain power. (1) But how have these promising uses and claims stood up to modern science?
If lion's mane mushroom was claimed to have cognitive benefits, then we would expect to see some positive effects on our nervous systems. Indeed, a 2012 study conducted in Malaysia found that components of lion's mane can induce nerve growth factor (NGF) synthesis in nerve cells. (2) NGF is critical for preserving and growing neurons. Lion's mane has also been shown to stimulate "neurite outgrowth," which is part of the process that produces new brain and nerve cells. (3) In mouse studies, researchers have discovered that supplementing with lion's mane protects against the impacts of Parkinson's and Alzhiemer's disease. (4,5)
A different, double-blind, placebo-controlled human study tested lion's mane's ability to improve cognitive function in aging test subjects that had mild cognitive impairment. Researchers found that taking a dry powder form of the mushroom over a 16 week period significantly improved the subject's scores on a cognitive function scale compared to the placebo group. Once supplementation ended, test subjects scores decreased, suggesting that lion's mane is effective in improving symptoms of impaired cognitive function. (6)
The health benefits don't stop there. Lion's mane mushroom has immunity boosting and anti-inflammatory properties. A study was publsihed in 2017 that investigated the impacts of compounds found in lion's mane in mice. Macrophages and natural killer (NK) cells play a vital role in the body's ability to fight off infection. After lion's mane was introduced in the test group's blood stream, both of these white blood cells functions were improved. (7)
Excessive inflammation has been extensively studied and found to be a root cause of many metabolic diseases practically unknownculturesnt cultures. While a small amount of inflammation allows your body to respond and adapt to acute stress, chronic inflammation triggers a cascade of negative reactions that, over time, can contribute to the negative effects metabolic syndrome. (8) Between pro-inflammatory processed foods and hectic day to day demands of a fast-paced lifestyle, our modern way of living has placed a greater strain on our natural ability to quell inflammation as it arises. (9) For this reason, it's imperative to have a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods. Lion's mane could be a powerful component in reducing chronic inflammation. Specifically, inflammation caused by excessive adipose tissue in obese individuals, an underlying aspect of metabolic diseases, can be reduced by using lion's mane. (10)
Along with its properties as an adaptogen, that is, a naturally occurring substance that helps the body adapt to stress and return its functions to homeostasis, lion's mane also shows promise in fighting certain types of cancer. A 2011 study found that lion's mane was effective in inducing apoptosis (cell death) of Leukemia cells (11) while another study looking at the effects of lion's mane extracts on cancer cell growth found the mushroom has potential as an anticancer agent, effective against liver, colon, and gastric cancers. (12)
For diabetic individuals following a high fat diet, lion's mane could serve as another component to aid in stabilizing blood sugar and energy levels. One method the mushroom stabilizes blood sugar is by inhibiting an enzyme, alpha-glucosidase, in the small intestine. Once this enzyme is blocked, the body cannot break down carbs as well, resulting in lower blood sugar levels. (13)
While more research is needed before prescribing exact protocols for cancer patients and individuals overcoming obesity, current findings have illuminated a host of potential benefits. With no known negative side effects of consuming the fungus apart from those with a fungal allergy, why not try adding some lion's mane to your next cup of tea or saute it as a seafood alternative with some olive oil and thyme?